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A Pain In The Power Structure's Rear

Connie Rice Is Always Fighting. Her Latest Battle Is Against the 'Aggressive Incompetence' That Hobbles Public Education in the State.

October 01, 2000|KERRY MADDEN | Kerry Madden is a Los Angeles writer. Her last piece for the magazine was on a Los Angeles teacher and librettist who use the Kitty Genovese case as an educational tool

On a spring evening in 1998, Genethia Hayes, executive director of the L.A. chapter of the Southern Christian Conference, called civil rights attorney Connie Rice at her downtown office and roared, "You get your high yellow ass down here and bring that wonderful white woman you run with!" Moments earlier, Barbara Boudreaux had told Hayes that if she wanted to open her mouth about how L.A.'s public schools should be run, she'd have to take away Boudreaux's seat on the Los Angeles Unified School District board. Livid, Hayes turned to Rice, the woman she would most want beside her in battle--especially one over education.

* To the city's power brokers, Rice is a quixotic force of nature, as hard to define as she is to ignore, the prime mover in collaborative lawsuits against all the usual suspect acronyms: LAPD, MTA, DWP, LAUSD. Mark Rosenbaum, legal director of the ACLU in Los Angeles, calls her a cross between civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Says L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, "Connie is not only a thorn in the side of the power structures of Los Angeles, but a jewel in the crown." To Hayes, Rice was simply a friend who is not averse to a good fight. As Rice herself puts it: "You don't tell women like us, 'Take my seat.' Because we will."

The board race soon degenerated into ethnic infighting and general nastiness, but with the help of "that wonderful white woman"--Rice's law partner, Molly Munger--and the backing of Mayor Richard Riordan, Hayes snatched Boudreaux's seat out from under her, later parlaying her victory into the presidency of a board whose newly elected majority has pledged sweeping change. Now Rice, 44, is waiting for the revolution. She's not waiting patiently.

In March, the Advancement Project, a public-policy legal action organization that Rice and Munger helped create, joined a coalition of civic groups, including MALDEF, to file a lawsuit against the State Allocations Board, charging that the board funds school building projects based on how quickly districts file applications rather than how desperate they are for new buildings--"speed over need." On Aug. 24, a superior court judge sided with the coalition and ordered the state to come up with a way to allocate funding based on need. But Rice says she has just begun to fight. LAUSD itself is the most overcrowded district in the state, and if the district continues to drag its feet in building schools and implementing change, she may wind up doing battle again--this time against the "reform" board she helped elect. Should that happen, Rice thinks Hayes will understand. Although the two say they are sisters and plan to sit on each other's porches during their golden years, Rice says she has no intention of whiling away the hours talking " 'coulda, shoulda, woulda,' while the children of Los Angeles still can't read."

*

SOMETHING TO KNOW ABOUT CONNIE RICE: SHE MEASURES ONLY 5 FEET, 6 INCHES, but she's been told she seems more like 6-foot-1. This illusion may stem from a growth in self-image that began when she was a freshman at Harvard, a time when she'd never dated and didn't know the decorum (still doesn't, she says). When a fellow student hounded her to go out with him, she finally said: "Why would I go out with you? You're domineering, and you're insecure about being short." The man beat her, breaking her nose. Haunted by her inability to fight back, she began studying tae kwon do. After graduating in 1978 with a degree in government, she earned her black belt and went on to become a national champion. "It took three years to remake myself so that in a male world I would feel safe enough to exercise power," she says. "I stopped the Mary Tyler Moore act and became Murphy Brown on Viagra."

Studying martial arts freed her from certain gender expectations and lent support to a theory she had developed: "In general, men are afraid of being embarrassed and women are afraid of being killed. Once you've beaten a man in the ring, well, that mythology is gone. You mean I can kick their asses, too? I became fearless, and I never looked at men the same way again."

That confidence persists. For example, because she travels frequently, she has taken it upon herself to instruct men how to sit in airplane seats. "Women are taught to take up as little space as possible, while men claim their own space as a birthright." On one recent trip, she pointed out to the man seated beside her that he was using both armrests and that his leg had drifted into her space. She told him to move over. He was shocked. "It wasn't anything personal. I was teaching him how to contain his body."

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